Tchaikovsky / Piano Concerto #1 / Richter/ Karajan – Our First Shootout Winner, 2008

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Album Reviews of the Music of Tchaikovsky

This fairly quiet Large Tulips early DG pressing in the heavy cardboard outer sleeve has THE BEST SOUND we have ever heard for this recording! Believe me, they don’t all sound like this! This copy is airy and sweet; just listen to the flutes — you can really hear the air moving through them. There is still some congestion in the loudest passages, but that’s unfortunately not something we can do anything about. Since it’s on every copy we’ve ever played we just have to assume it’s part of the recording.

Of the twenty or so clean copies we’ve auditioned over the last year or two, this one is clearly in a league of its own, with a price to match.

THE Tchaikovsky First

Since this is the best performance of the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto of all time, the minor shortcomings in the sound are easy to overlook. The piano sounds solid and full bodied. I don’t know of another performance of this work that gets the sound of the piano better. You can really hear the percussive quality of the instrument. It’s amazing how many piano recordings have poorly mic’ed pianos. They’re either too distant, lack proper reproduction of the lower registers, or somehow smear the pounding of the keys into a blurry mess. The piano sound is what first impressed me when a friend of mine brought the record over for me to hear. Of course I bought it on the spot.

And the texture of the strings is out of this world — you won’t find a DG that gets with better string tone, and 99% of them are worse. This record does not sound like your typical DG: hard, shrill, and sour. DG made good records in the ’50s and ’60s and then proceeded to fall apart, like most labels did. This is one of their finest recordings. It proves that at one time they knew what they were doing.

This recording really only has one shortcoming, which is that in some sections, when it gets loud, it tends to be a bit congested. Other places are very dynamic. I’m guessing somebody dialed in too much compression in those spots, but who’s to say?

Most of These Don’t Sound Good

Since that time I’ve had a chance to acquire a number of other copies of it and have found tremendous pressing variablity. I was expecting to be able to find good copies and offer them on the site on a regular basis. Instead, we discovered to our chagrin that few quiet copies you might run into tend not to sound good — super-compressed, harsh, lacking in ambience, and missing the full weight of the piano that makes this recording so exceptional.

We Was Wrong

In our previous Hot Stamper commentary we noted:

These rare and early DG LPs are the only way to hear it! I discovered to my chagrin that sometimes they don’t sound good, but that is not the case here! This copy is wonderful.

We now know that even the later copies with the small tulips labels can have wonderful sound. Live and learn, that’s what makes record collecting fun, right?

Having said that, it’s still true that the early Deutsche Grammophons tend to sound far better than the stuff they were pressing in the ’70s. (This is of course also true for other labels that went to pot like Angel and Philips.)

Karajan is King, for Once

I’m not a fan of Karajan in general. In fact, I know very few recordings of his that I like. Why he has the reputation he has as a great conductor is a mystery to me. Having said that, on this record he is wonderful.

Richter Owns this Work

Richter is brutal at the piano, pounding the hell out of it, which in my opinion is what the work really needs. Karajan, his partner in all of this, has the orchestra play very sweetly, the opposite of what you would expect from the man. He still brings the power of the orchestra to bear when called for though.

The famous Van Cliburn (LSC 2252), the one that everybody knows, is mediocre sounding. This record doesn’t have a lot of competition in terms of sonics and we feel that it has no competition in terms of performance. It’s simply the best.